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The Attack on Human Rights Watch

On August 3—three weeks after a Lebanese Hezbollah raid into Israel set off a war that lasted until August 14—Human Rights Watch published a report, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” that inspired a series of vitriolic attacks on the organization’s credibility. According to some of the critics, the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, is biased against Israel and an anti-Semite. Unfortunately, the criticisms are based on misunderstandings and distortions of international humanitarian law. They contribute to an atmosphere that makes rational discussion in the United States of Israel’s policies and practices increasingly difficult.

One of the cases discussed in Human Rights Watch’s report was the killing of twenty-one civilians fleeing the border village of Marwahin:

On July 15, an Israeli strike on a convoy of civilians fleeing from the Lebanese border village of Marwahin killed twenty-one people, including fourteen children. Many villagers fled after the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] warned them to evacuate ahead of the threatened attack. In addition, a relative of one of the victims said, Hezbollah had stored weapons in the village, and the residents feared a retaliatory IDF attack. The villagers of Marwahin are Sunni and have long-standing tensions with the Shi’a Hezbollah organization….

At 11 a.m. a group of villagers left Marwahin in a convoy of vehicles, on the single main road out of the village. On the way, between the villages of Chamaa and Biyada, two weapons believed to have been fired from Israeli helicopters struck a white pick-up and a passenger car in the convoy. A photographer for an international news agency arrived at the scene two hours after the attack. He told Human Rights Watch that he found a white pick-up truck and a passenger car completely destroyed, and counted sixteen bodies at the scene, including many children. He did not see any armed persons among the bodies. UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] retrieved sixteen bodies from the scene, and stated that their medical teams came under fire during the rescue operation. A total of twenty-one people died during the attack, based on a list of names provided to Human Rights Watch by the relatives, and on the number of bodies ultimately received at the Tyre Government hospital.

The report that describes this episode and others that involved the killing of 153 civilians—more than one third of those reported killed in Lebanon during the first two weeks of the war—points out that international humanitarian law (IHL), or the law of war, imposes a duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians.1 It is only permissible to target combatants. IHL prohibits indiscriminate attacks, and such attacks include those that employ a means of combat (generally, the kinds of weapons that are used) or a method (the way such weapons are used) that is, by its nature, likely to injure or kill civilians or civilians and combatants without distinction. This does not mean that military targets are immune from attack because they are located in the immediate vicinity of civilians. Indeed, those who locate weapons in civilian homes and populated areas themselves—as was charged against Hezbollah—are guilty of serious violations of IHL. Yet attacks must attempt to focus on military targets and, as Human Rights Watch pointed out:

A deliberately indiscriminate attack that causes incidental death or injury to civilians or civilian objects that is clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated from the attack is a war crime.

If the Lebanese targeted were only civilian supporters of Hezbollah, attacks on them were forbidden by IHL; so was targeting Israeli civilians who support Israel’s armed forces—the overwhelming majority of Israelis. On the other hand, if the Israel Defense Forces had information that certain people were combatants, or had a role in military command, they were legitimate targets.

In the case of the villagers fleeing Marwahin, the means of combat used—a helicopter attack on a passenger car and a pickup truck—meant that the IDF had a responsibility to determine whether the military advantage of killing those who might have been legitimate targets outweighed the harm to the civilians, including fourteen children, who died in the attack. If, for example, a civilian house was a site from which rockets were launched that could kill Israelis, the military advantage of destroying that house and rocket launcher might justify civilian casualties. Yet since the vehicles fleeing Marwahin could not have been used for such purposes and Human Rights Watch found no evidence that they were involved in Hezbollah military activity, this appears to have been an indiscriminate attack in violation of IHL.

In issuing its report, Human Rights Watch noted that it had simultaneously documented violations of IHL by Hezbollah, “including a pattern of attacks that amount to war crimes.” Summarizing those separate findings in its August 3 report, the organization said that between July 12 and 27, Hezbollah had launched a reported 1,300 rockets into predominantly civilian areas in Israel, killing eighteen civilians and wounding more than three hundred. Some of the rockets, it said, were packed with thousands of metal ball bearings that sprayed more than one hundred meters from a blast. HRW’s finding on the use of the ball bearings, which is a violation of IHL, was the first disclosure of this practice.

One of the fundamental principles of IHL is that violations by one side in a conflict do not justify violations by the other side. Each has an independent duty to respect IHL. Hezbollah’s crimes against Israeli civilians do not justify indiscriminate attacks by Israel against civilians in Lebanon. Summarizing its findings with respect to Israel’s conduct, Human Rights Watch said:

By consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks on only military targets. The pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon suggests that the failures cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents; the extent of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.

One of those who responded angrily to the Human Rights Watch report was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He said, “Human Rights Watch’s approach to these problems is immorality at the highest level,” and he accused Kenneth Roth of engaging in “a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews” for using the term an “eye for an eye” when referring to Israel’s policies.2 Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a leading Orthodox group, compared Roth to Mel Gibson.3 Martin Peretz of The New Republic said that “this Human Rights Watch libel has utterly destroyed its credibility, at least for me.”4 And Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, never to be outdone, wrote in The Jerusalem Post, “When it comes to Israel and its enemies, Human Rights Watch cooks the books about facts, cheats on interviews, and puts out predetermined conclusions that are driven more by their ideology than by evidence.”5

Attacks on Human Rights Watch by those who resent its criticism of one or another government, particularly at times of armed conflict, are nothing new. What does seem to be unique in this case is the virulence of the personal campaign against Kenneth Roth, the organization’s widely respected executive director, a Yale Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor who joined Human Rights Watch as deputy director in 1987 and has held his present post since 1993. Under Roth’s leadership, most observers would probably agree, Human Rights Watch is the preeminent source of reliable information on human rights abuses throughout the world. Hardly any nongovernmental organization anywhere is comparably influential with respect to international public policy. It is, perhaps, awareness that reporting by Human Rights Watch carries such weight that makes those who object to its reporting on Israel’s conduct in Lebanon so intent on disparaging its performance. Attacking its director seems to be a deliberate strategy intended to suggest that the organization has not simply made errors but that its reporting reflects deep bias against Israel and, if Abraham Foxman and others are to be believed, against Jews.

Helsinki Watch, the first component of what became Human Rights Watch, was established in 1978.6 During the 1980s, additional Watch Committees dealing with different regions were established, starting with Americas Watch in 1981. As the organization’s reporting became global later in the decade, it began using the name Human Rights Watch. Among its early contributions to the human rights field was the monitoring by Americas Watch to ascertain whether military forces in Central America conducted themselves in accordance with international humanitarian law. It reported both on violations of human rights by guerrilla forces fighting governments as well as on abuses by governments. Human Rights Watch has concentrated on reporting abuses committed by all sides in armed conflict and it also continues to devote extensive attention to nongovernmental abuses. An example is a 160-page report published by Human Rights Watch in 2002, “Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians.” Probably the leading study of the subject, it included a chapter on “Structures and Strategies of the Perpetrator Organizations” dealing with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Wherever possible, it named those responsible for crimes. Another chapter on “Financial and Logistical Support” dealt with the support given to suicide bombers by Iran, Syria, and Iraq (in the period when Saddam was still in power) as well as various Palestinian groups. A separate chapter addressed “The Role of the Palestinian Authority.”

Previous reporting by Human Rights Watch was criticized most severely in the early 1980s when Americas Watch investigated abuses during the conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Officials of the Reagan administration, such as Elliott Abrams, first as assistant secretary of state for human rights and then for inter-American affairs, regularly attacked its findings. They were aided by allies in Congress and by some in the press, particularly on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Other criticisms were published in Martin Peretz’s magazine The New Republic, where one of the editors, Fred Barnes (now of The Weekly Standard), denounced reports that reflected badly on the Reagan administration.

Those attempts to denigrate Human Rights Watch’s reporting had unintended consequences. They increased attention to the abuses that were the subject of the reports. Also, some of the journalists covering the wars in Central America conducted their own investigations of human rights abuses that the Reagan administration claimed had never taken place and found that Human Rights Watch’s reporting was accurate. That helped to give the organization credibility with the press and its reputation was much enhanced. It seems possible that Human Rights Watch would not have achieved the prestige it enjoys today were it not for the attacks it faced during its formative years.

  1. 1

    This is one of the core principles of international humanitarian law, and it derives both from the Hague and Geneva Conventions and from customary international law. See Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks, “War Everywhere: Rights, National Security Law, and the Law of Armed Conflict in the Age of Terror,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 675, 693 (2004), p. 153, which discusses the related principles of “discrimination” and “proportionality.” The principle of discrimination (sometimes termed the principle of “distinction”) requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to direct the application of force only against combatants. The principle of proportionality requires parties to ensure that the loss of life or property incident to an attack is not excessive in relation to the military advantages gained.

    Reflecting these principles, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’s definition of “war crimes” includes “intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; [or] attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives.” See the Rome Statute, Article 8.

  2. 2

    It is difficult to understand Foxman’s point here. Did Roth engage in “a classic anti-Semitic stereotype” because he implied that Israel responded to Hezbollah’s indiscriminate attacks out of adherence to Old Testament principles of lex talionis, retaliation in kind? If so, what is one to make of the passage in which Foxman raises the point about anti-Semitism? He writes:

    Israel had to make clear to the Arabs that they would be hurt far, far more than the pain they could inflict. In other words, without Israel hitting back (not in an “eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth” fashion which Mr. Roth cited…) but in a much stronger way, Israel would have been destroyed long ago. [The New York Sun, August 2, 2006]

    This suggests that Israel had to outdo Hezbollah in “hitting back.” The implication is that it is anti-Semitic to speak of retaliation in kind because that is too soft a policy.

  3. 3

    Roth’s False God,” editorial in The New York Sun, August 8, 2006.

  4. 4

    Martin Peretz on The New Republic‘s Web site, August 6, 2006.

  5. 5

    What Is ‘Human Rights Watch’ Watching?” The Jerusalem Post, August 24, 2006.

  6. 6

    Along with the publisher Robert L. Bernstein and lawyer Orville Schell, I was a founder of Helsinki Watch and served as the first executive director of Human Rights Watch until 1993 when Roth succeeded me.

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